Day trip to Azrou and the Amazigh Market
Every Tuesday, something special happens a couple of hours by car from Fes
Our cab driver politely informed us that we were close, and pointed to the mountains. Outside the window was the city of Ifrane – the ‘Switzerland of Morocco’. Unlike anywhere else in the country, the city has a distinct Swiss Alps feel, with hotels named, ‘The Chamonix’ and newly built ski lodges that suspiciously resemble the set from The Sound of Music. It feels miles away from the medina.
Azrou is just a couple of hours outside of Fes. Naturally beautiful, it is known for its monkey-filled Cedre-Gourande woodland, green hills and rivers that are distinctive of the Lower Atlas region. The town itself is small. But we were on a mission; one that my companions, Joe, Oliver and I were adamant to experience: Azrou’s notorious Amazigh Market.
What makes the market such an unmissable event? It only takes place once a week, on Tuesday. The majority of visitors come from all over the Amazigh region, making it an opportunity to learn about Amazigh culture, since Fes is after all: more Arabic in nature. If antiques are your thing, or if you feel like packing a live chicken into hand luggage, you’ll find it here. It seems that just about anything is for sale at the Azrou market.
But the main draw was the food, which even the Fassi we’d spoken to claimed was delicious. With quality meat, and fresh spices a dirham’s toss away from the food stalls, we were promised some truly unique dishes.
After arriving in Azrou, the smell of bubbling tagine pots threatened to interfere with our mission. But we walked on, eventually finding ourselves in a small and charming medina. By the bus station, an indoor meat and fish market offers window into local life. Cafes line the modern town-square, where regulars watch tourists stroll into souvenir shops and restaurants.
The Amazigh market itself is a twenty-minute walk just outside of town. The southern road leads you through a residential district and along quaint hill-top villages where visiting tradesmen and shoppers, dressed in djellabas, begin to appear. It’s only when you stand directly outside the entrance that you get a feel for the vastness of the market. A sea of tent roofs goes on as far as the eye can see, making it an overwhelming place to begin exploring.
The end closest to town is full of second-hand clothes and fake football shirts. The centre is divided between electrical supplies and, at a weird crossroads, fruit and vegetables. All along the dirt tracks, vendors sell merguez rolls and sugar snacks for next to nothing. Again, it’s tough to know where to begin; but the highlight of the experience is one street at the very back of the market, on the side furthest of town, where the livestock are sold in the morning.
One street fills the air with smoke from chargrilled meat and fish. Like an inviting cloud, it signals exactly the zone you ought to be spending those dirhams (alternatively there are plenty of Philips screwdrivers you could be shopping). But the tents at the back are huge spaces with hundreds of tables. Vegetarians, beware; lamb carcasses swing on ropes by the chef’s area. There is a distinct fleshy smell.
Pick one of the spots and ask for a ‘menu’. That’s forty dirhams (usually) and includes unlimited pots of tea, kofte ball starters with fluffy bread and cuts of fresh lamb. No salt, no pepper. Instead a shaker full of cumin, chilli and a number of other spices. It’s delicious – the only sad part is that you can’t eat at every single one of the stalls. The tea here is way sweeter than anywhere else I’ve been in Morocco. That seems to be how the Amazigh like it.
Since there are next to no tourists at the market, stares are a given. People observed us cautiously, but always smiled when our eyes crossed. The locals are very helpful; ensuring that you’re not lost and pointing out funny, or dramatic scenes, like rows of trucks with seven meters of hay stacked on-top. Or one hilarious moment out of a Benny Hill sketch where a farmer was chasing his mischievous sheep back-and-forth (we think he managed at the end).
It makes you wonder how some of this stuff got here. Tennis rackets with American addresses and Japanese baseball cards can be found alongside artisan-crafted copper pots. The Holy Grail is probably lost somewhere under piles of DVDs, going for ten dirhams. Half the fun is seeing what you can find.
When you’re shopped out, the surrounding area is a nice hike. A little village atop a hill makes a good detour back to Azrou town, making you cross lush fields and streams into a cedar woodland. There is a path that allows you to enter the town from the forest. Otherwise locals will offer to drive you on the back of their van. Your call. But if you have the time, and your stomach isn’t weighed down by grilled kofte, then the views from the hilltop village are stunning, and walking through the tranquil cedar wood gives you a chance to ponder over the market and the coffee pot you just bought for twice as cheaply in Fes.
And if there’s more time, or if you want to stay in Azrou, the Cedre-Gouraude forest is full of barbary macaques and waterfalls. Azrou is certainly a hiker’s paradise.
For the rest of us, there is the trip back to Fes. Back to the medina. Away from the peace of the woodlands and vibrancy of Azrou’s Amazigh market.
Like they say in the Wizard of Oz, ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy!’.
By Chris Cotonou: Instagram
Photos: Joe Walford: Instagram